CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 8 (UPI) -- As the United States approaches a return to human spaceflight and a rapid increase in the frequency of satellite launches, an entire generation of workers from the Apollo program and space shuttle days have retired.
A new generation of commercial space companies, dubbed "NewSpace," is emerging around the world and on Florida's Space Coast, where astronauts once departed for the moon missions of the 1960s and '70s and on space shuttle missions in the following decades.
Brevard County, where Kennedy Space Center is located, saw a bigger economic crash than the rest of the country during the Great Recession because of the end of the shuttle program. It has now returned to booming growth thanks to the economy and the boom in NewSpace companies.
Unemployment hit a low of 2.9 percent in Brevard in fall of 2018, down from almost 12 percent unemployment in 2010. The labor force hit a low of 189,740 people employed in 2011, but was back up to 224,200 people employed in December.
Central Florida companies have formed the Space Coast Consortium to revitalize the talent pool in the area, including OneWeb, Rocket Crafters, RUAG, Matrix, Precision Shapes, Discovery Aviation and Knights Armament.
SpaceX, the most frequent launcher in Florida, is not formally part of the consortium but has been hiring for dozens of positions at Cape Canaveral. This week, the company launched a successful test of the Crew Dragon module, which aims to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, from Cape Canaveral.
Another new player, Firefly Aerospace, just announced another new rocket plant with plans to hire 200 workers in 2020.
Commercial space endeavours are expected to be a $3 trillion industry by 2035, according to a forecast by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
A study by Advanced Technology Services and ACNielsen in 2013 anticipated the growing demand and identified shortages not only of senior-level engineers, but also skilled labor in technology fundamentals, or soft skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, literacy, communication and collaboration.
The Space Coast of Florida is particularly challenged to ramp up the workforce eight years after the last shuttle launch. Hundreds of new workers are being hired at Cape Canaveral, where new rocket plants are opening as private companies renovate old launch pads.
Desperate for a new supply of talent, the consortium launched an official apprenticeship program based on a historic German model. Other companies in Texas and California are sponsoring model rocket programs for students, hiring interns and funding new programs at local schools.
"It's really getting into full gear now. We've been registered with the state and have openings now for 19 apprentices in seven companies for the first year," said Bryan Kamm, a consultant working with Florida space companies to launch the apprentice program.
The program requires a time commitment to the company of two to four years, when the student gets paid education with local colleges while also gaining experience and training in the workplace.
"This is exactly the problem of a growing industry in a growing economy, with the unemployment rate at 2 or 3 percent in some areas," said Kai Schmidt, director of human resources at OneWeb, which plans to launch a global constellation of thousands of satellites. OneWeb has built a new satellite manufacturing plant near KSC, the first of its kind in Florida.
"Unlike internships, the apprentice program enables another career path," Schmidt said, "because some people are more practice-oriented, and don't want to do four years of college, or more, right away."
He said OneWeb is ready to support a program that builds talent for the entire industry, because that is the scale of what's needed, to match the widespread growth.
OneWeb's workforce will include 80 mechatronic technicians or manufacturing associates, which require skills but not necessarily a college degree. It plans to begin manufacturing of satellites in March after a few delays while getting its supply chain organized and establishing locations for ground control of satellites, Schmidt said.
Getting a 2018 internship with rocket company Firefly was a transformative experience for aerospace engineering student Noah Gula.
He went from Ohio State University's campus, where the late senator and astronaut John Glenn's name is on buildings and programs, to a summer internship program at Firefly's headquarters in Cedar Park, Texas.
"I'd never really worked on building a real rocket before. There were a lot of things I didn't expect," said Gula, 21. "I worked hard, and had a wonderful time."
Beyond the apprentice or intern level, the industry also making direct appeals to schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. Real rocket companies like Firefly are wading in hip-deep to promote, fund and mentor model rocketry and experimental programs like the nonprofit Base 11 Space Challenge.
That competition is engaging college-level teams to design, build and launch a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to an altitude of 100 kilometers by December 30, 2021 -- for a $1 million prize. Aimed specifically at beefing up science and math skills among middle-class and minority communities, the Base 11 challenge has partners in big industry like CalTech, Verizon and the Deloitte Foundation.
Base 11 is floating another $1.5 million grant to one of the nation's historically black colleges and universities to launch its own liquid-fuel rocketry program.
Schmidt is working from OneWeb's offices in Satellite Beach, Fla, where he says local schools are doing well in preparing students.
NewSpace companies are not looking only for people with training or degrees in science and engineering, although that helps.
"We need proactive people, not people who are waiting for instruction, and people who work together and rely on each other," Schmidt said. "We focus on soft skills, actually, like being polite, sharing, teamwork, listening, learning by overcoming mistakes, courage, curiosity, speaking up. If we have those qualities, we can bridge knowledge gaps."
Firefly CEO Tom Markusic said he wants America to continue to be the pre-eminent space-faring nation. The company recently donated $1 million to University of Texas to develop rocket science programs and is putting together a model rocket program for students.
Out of that grew the Firefly Academy, where 15 college students come to the company's headquarters every Monday night to learn on site. Markusic also goes to UT to give lectures.
Firefly is also helping UT's rocketry team prepare for the Base 11 Space Challenge.
"We want rocketry to be a discipline of excellence at the UT," he said. "Once we get set up in Florida that will be a priority there also."